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Interview with Anthony Lister

08 JAN 2012 | Posted By: LifeloungeStaff

Interview with Anthony Lister

 Anthony Lister
 Anthony Lister
 Anthony Lister – Photograph by Justin Joffe
Anthony Lister
Anthony Lister
Anthony Lister
Anthony Lister
Anthony Lister
Anthony Lister
Anthony Lister
Photographs by Justin Joffe

Brisbane’s Anthony Lister hardly needs an intro at this point. He’s spent the better part of the last decade hopping around the globe making waves in both the global graffiti scene and the rarefied world of fine art. In many ways he’s set the bar for Australian street artists looking to make the transition into the gallery world, not that he’d ever admit to being a role model.

Lister was in Melbourne recently for the opening of his latest solo exhibition ‘Street Faces’, bringing with him a whole new body of work and an anamatronic graffiti robot to boot. We caught up with him briefly to chat about his style, his influences, and how to go about doing it all.

Sean Irving:
Would you mind introducing yourself to us first up?
Anthony Lister: Sure, hi, I'm Anthony Lister.

SI: How long have you been working on 'Street Faces'?
AL: On and off probably for the last five months. I've been traveling a fair bit in Berlin and London and LA, so this body of work has just been the kind of thing that I can get my teeth into when I'm in the studio.

SI: How do you feel about how it was received the other night in Melbourne?
AL: It was great, man. I was really into it. Everything worked perfectly, the robot survived. You know, 'cos it's hard work transporting a robot with so many moving parts.

SI: When did you get into robotics?
AL: I mean I've been exhibiting sculptures for a long time, and I realised I wanted to move into moving sculptures [probably when I saw Banksy's show in New York at the Pet Shop]. It just really occurred to me that that was amazing and that I wanted to move into it. But not using animals, using human beings. So I made this little boy and then got a technician in to help me make him actually move without being plugged in all the time, and that was that.

SI: This latest series seems like a real return to your earlier style street stuff, what drew you to that kind of imagery originally?
AL: I think I came to start making this body of work after I'd done a really extensive and involved body [of work] about heroes. You know, it was really figurative and serious geometric shapes. I wanted to make a body of work that I felt a bit freer with so faces just came really naturally and I thought, 'I'm just going to do what I do on the street'. Also I wanted to warm myself and free myself up so that I could get back to serious figurative painting.

I just ended up doing them with this energy and liking them. And thinking how can I use this concept of it being a face and bring it out of just the aesthetic, comfortable fun thing to paint that I'm familiar with. Then that turned into the drawings on the canvas by the kids, then conceptually it became resolved. When I see my work in places after years of being there people have added to it, they've done little tags and have written things on it and I realised that I've become sort of a net for other artists to exist in along the way. So it's kind of it's been really nice to make this body of work.

SI: What is it that attracts you to portraiture? Why do you feel more comfortable with it?
AL: Oh well I mean when I work on the street I want to work quickly, and I want to work in a design way rather than a fine art way. I want to activate it, execute it, and then walk away. I guess these faces, I've been practising them for a long time so they're comfortable in the sense that I knew, or I thought I knew, where I was going and what I was doing with them.

SI: So how was that process of transitioning those pieces to canvas? Did you have to try and change that street aesthetic?
AL: Look, I basically just treated it like it was the street, you know what I'm saying? And then along the way I worked out how I wanted to evolve it and how I wanted to render it in order for it to be different from the street. 'Cos when they're in the studio I've got three months with them so I don't want to rush them. But I still want to hold that pure line you know? I still want to capture the energy, and it's done very quickly and then a lot of it is just trying not to fuck it up. Trying not to take it too far once you've already got what it’s meant to be.

SI: I guess looking at your work over the past couple of years there's always been 'Lister' on the street, and that's one style. Then there's Anthony Lister the fine artist and that's a different style. This show seems like it has bridged those two identities to a certain extent...
AL: Yeah this show kind of did. It brought Anthony Lister and Lister closer together.

SI: Is that where you see your work heading, or is it just a diversion for now?
AL: Yeah it's definitely just a little diversion for now. And I guess I'm just trying to open up repertoire for my collectors and to my viewers. Just to open the dialogue in order for me to expand my vocabulary in the future aesthetically so that I can return to this. Or I can feel more confident on the street and be like, 'look this is actually my fine art steez'. 'Cos you know I've got other names that I write on walls that I don't tell anybody, and that is so far from coming on board with my fine art, or my street art for that matter. There's kind of three tier levels of application and identification and alias.

SI: How hard is it to keep those identities separate?
AL: How hard? It's very hard. It's not hard when I make my work because it's very clear to me what I'm doing. But it's hard to keep them separate in the mind of my viewers because when they see me in the club tagging some shit that they didn't know I tag and they're like, 'Oh fuck, that's you dude?' and it's like, I don't really want that all to get out you know? It's something that I do for me.

SI: I've heard you speak previously about 'landscape portraiture' and I was wondering if you could tell us a little about that concept?
AL: I guess my first awareness of landscape portraiture would have been through Salvador Dali and or Brett Whiteley, where they'd do landscapes and just sort of weave faces through them as a sort of secondary position. With me I kind of wasn't conscious when I was doing it, I was just painting what I wanted to paint, because that's how I paint.

It came about from me painting a wall, and the wall getting buffed. The TV made a big deal of it and the council got involved, I was in New York at the time and I'd got photos of it but I was kind of bummed that I couldn't see it again. So I wanted to paint that picture on canvas, so it just turned into a landscape and it turned out that I was painting my picture again that I'd painted on the wall, which was a portrait. And then I painted myself into it, painting the picture on the wall. So it just seemed natural to call it landscape portraiture. I feel like it's really quite literal.

SI: Your work has always included plenty of graff history references, how important is the history of that culture to you personally?
AL: I mean I'm good friends with Roger Gastman who has just written 'The History of American Graffiti', and the culture itself is really important to me. Only in the sense that I need to know about it, and I've been interested in it for a very long time. I don't necessarily want to be a player in graffiti history, but it's definitely important for me to be educated about graffiti as much as I am about Dada, or Surrealism, or Modernism, or any part of the canon of art history.

SI: Speaking about figures like Roger Gastman, with exhibitions like the Museum of Contemporary Art's 'Art in the Streets' show it seem like the public is becoming more and more engaged with this graffiti culture that's more than thirty years old now. Is that something you've got an opinion on?
Sure, I mean it is [becoming more accepted] whether they like it or not. But that's not really what it's about. You know, just the fact that the show was put on and produced by Jeffery Deitch, Aaron Rose and Roger Gastman doesn't mean that it's quantifiably accepted by the community. It's not like the wave has broken and graffiti is cool and everyone can do it and everyone understands it, because that's just not a fact. [Former Mayor] Giuliani put a lot of work into getting graffiti out of New York, you know the whole three strike thing.

It's tricky, you've got people in prison right now for doing graffiti, for doing art that wasn't commissioned using their own paint and their own time, and then you've got coca-cola barons out there that are wheeling and dealing their drugs. So the paradox is extreme, and I don't really want to get that far into it or be a spokesman for it or anything, but it's crazy and even a little exciting that art can still be dangerous and exciting [laughs]. Isn't that awesome?

SI: On a completely different subject, something that constantly reappears in your work are these references to Francis Bacon, and I know you've done several portraits of him. What is it about him that you find so appealing?
AL: Oh Francis, he was just a great painter okay? Let's just put that out there. When it comes down to it, whether you're a drunk or a gambler or a prostitute or a murderer that's all beside the fact of being a great painter. Because that's what counts in the end. See before I knew of Francis Bacon, I knew of Francis Bacon's work and that's just that. I guess Brett Whiteley introduced me to Francis Bacon's work and it's just been a beautiful relationship ever since. I think the man is really charming in an obtuse sort of way, and he's kind of verging on vulgar but just completely articulate. I think he was a gorgeous man and I think that his paintings are amazing, and that I've still got a lot to learn from him. So that's why I paint him.

I hope that people that are interested in me will go, 'Wow, that's the sort of person he's interested in', and then go and watch the interviews and go, 'Yeah this guy was really on it’. He's pure and when he needed to he dropped it, and that's in interviews and things. Obviously that's the only place that I've seen him working, on film, but he really pulled it off when he needed to. I think that's another thing that I try to get from him.

SI: How do you want people to remember you?
AL: Just like I remember Francis Bacon, like a charming man that did amazing work and risked more than others thought was safe. Maybe.

SI: Maybe?
AL: I don't know, I'm trying to make art here. I'm trying to do it for everyone. So it's a tricky thing, a lot has been done before me so I need to be aware of that but also not be restrained by it so that I can push forward on my own endeavours. I don't really know if I want to be remembered, I kind of just want to make work. Maybe the work will be remembered, but really it's all 2D, it'll all just burn away. I just want to have fun doing it now. That's what I'm focusing on, I'm not focusing on the legacy.

Street Faces is open at Metro Gallery until the 17th of September.
Interview with Graffiti World author Nicholas Ganz
Interview with Jonathan Guthmann of Drawing Dicks on the Herald Sun
Interview with Sydney artist Beastman
Interview with Melbourne design collective, Motherbird
Interview with Positive Posters' Nick Hallam
Interview with artist Eric Yahnker
Interview with Melbourne artist Meggs
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